Below are the remarks from the September 18, 2018 “Off the Couch” viewing of The Wife with Rodrigo Barahona, PsyaD. Member of BPSI. “Off the Couch” is part of a decades-long collaboration between The Coolidge Cinema and BPSI.
Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) is about to be awarded the Nobel Prize for his acclaimed and prolific body of work. Joe’s literary star has blazed since him and his wife Joan (Glenn Close) first met in the late 1950’s. The Wife interweaves the story of the couple’s youthful passion and ambition with a portrait of a marriage, thirty-plus years later—a lifetime’s shared compromises, secrets, betrayals, and mutual love.
The psychoanalyst and social anthropologist Rosine Perelberg has written about how anthropologists see myths as “offering narratives that attempt to answer the questions that each culture poses about its origins and the relationship between the genders and the generations” (Perelberg, 2015, p. 119). Since films, like myths, are a part of how a culture is narrated, I would like to suggest a similar approach when thinking about a film from a contemporary psychoanalytic point of view, one that in tandem with excavating origins takes into account the impact of the present moment. From this psychoanalytic perspective, a film may be viewed as an attempt at answering questions that each culture poses about its present state, not just its origins and relations between genders and generations. The questions are unconscious, and the answers are attached to words, images, and action. Two contemporary issues that I felt are dealt with most thoroughly in this film are that of gender and the role of the father in society and the family.
Jacques Lacan, a French analyst in the 60’s and 70’s wrote about gender identity formation. His work, steeped as it was in structuralism and post-structuralism, underwrites a lot of critical theory on gender today. While some of his ideas certainly apply to the times in which they were written, I wonder and invite you to think of how true they might still ring today, especially in regards to this film. What this film depicts in the relationship between the two protagonists, far from being just a snapshot of the past, is something we are still grappling with today as a society. Writing from within a Lacanian framework, Jan Van Buren (1992) uses the psychoanalytic term, now somewhat out of use except in Lacanian circles, phallus, to describe how it is that society grants de facto authority, power, and access to males. The term phallus is not to be confused with the organ of the penis, the two terms differentiating between the psychical and biological realities respectively. Phallus is that which represents everything that is subsumed under the mother’s desire, what the child intuits the mother wants. When what the mother wants–what the Other/Society wants-–the phallus–-is confused with the penis, it is used to “support a structure in which it seems reasonable that men have power and women do not, and implies the reduction of the Law of the Father to the rule of the actual living male.” (Perelberg, 2015. pg. 138). Sound familiar? According to Van Buren (1992, p. 228-229):
The formation of female gender, then, as we know it, includes envy of the phallus, the symbolic key to the entrance into the domain of conscious discourse and the sphere of intellectual political and economic achievement. Male gender defines meaningful male existence through a contrast or concept of incomplete inferior female nature. Male gender includes the projection of the fear of weakness, littleness and helplessness into female gender structures. Female gender includes the relinquishment of assertive self-realizing and self-determining qualities, attributing these to masculine character … both sexes … are haunted and persecuted by the alter ego (male-female) whom they long to integrate rather than possess.
What this means is not that there is anything essentially “male” about assertiveness, intellectuality or self-determination or anything essentially female about the lack of these, but that in order to live in society, free of neurosis and anxiety, males must experience and carry themselves as if weakness and inferiority belonged to females, and females must project self-determination and self-realization into males as if these were essentially male qualities. However, this is a Faustian bargain that condemns each gender to feel forever in lack, entwined and interlocked with the other in search of contact with that lost part of themselves. Put more succinctly by Perelberg, “gender differences are culturally selected from among biological characteristics and are turned into “natural differences” between the sexes. What westerners regard as the natural characteristics of men and women are neither universal nor natural” (2015, p. 115). It is not difficult to see how a society (or a family, as in this film) limited to these configurations of gender identity and gender role identifications will have a limited growth potential and sooner or later will reach a breaking point, like the one we might actually be reaching now, when the relationships within and between genders and generations have never been more restless. Contained in this Lacanian critique, although Lacan certainly never stated it outright, is the idea that for societies to grow, they must become more inclusive, and for that to occur, the way individuals experience their genders too must become more inclusive. To a certain extent, that change has to be a structural one. As Lacan noted, the so-called phallus is what holds the key to the domains of conscious discourse and intellectual, political, and economic achievement. So, there is a nominee for the Supreme Court who is a Male, and there is an accuser, who is a Female. Whose voice will be authorized to be true? So, teenage boys are expected to rape teenage girls as part of their wild and crazy high school experiences. And so the Nobel Prize Winners in this film are all Old White Men. Someone on NPR the other day defined politics as “the art of deciding who gets what“. As society is reorganized in a way that the keys to achievement are distributed equitably, so will the qualities of what it means to be a gendered person be rethought and evolve. But the film reminds us that the structural factors are sustained by individual psychological factors, and that there is comfort and enjoyment, perhaps ironically even agency, in the subjective relinquishing of certain qualities and projecting them into the other, with whom one remains interlocked in conflicted enjoyment.
Such is the case of our protagonists Joe/Joan, who we might think of as embodying these mutually interlocked and lacking genders Lacan wrote about. Joe has won the Nobel Prize in Literature, even though, unbeknownst to the world and even their two children, Joan has ghost written all of his work. Joan learned early on that regardless of her talent, as a female writer her voice would never be taken seriously. The film takes us from the moment the couple first hears the news of the prize, flashing us back to their courtship when she is a writing student at Smith and he is her professor, to the night of the award ceremony when anxiety strikes at the heart of the family as the distorted myth of its origin begins to crumble under the weight of the truth.
Throughout the narrative, we get glimpses of questions related to what it means to be a woman or a man, father, mother, wife, husband, son, and daughter, in relation to each other in a family. Let us look at how Joe presents his family to us: Here is my wife, “she doesn’t write”. Without her there would be no me. Here is my daughter, she is beautiful and pregnant, with a baby that looks just like me. Here is my son, he’s trying real hard to find his voice, smokes pot and can’t tie a tie. Here am I, on the other hand, Joe-a literary genius, voracious and unlimited in my desire for sugar, fat, and women, and entitled to an endless amount of second-chances.
So, here is a story, ancient and contemporary, familiar to us through personal experiences, and retold in countless films, novels, and myths. That of the narcissistic, patriarchal father at the center of the family and of social order, who must be killed in order for a new social organization to emerge, based on a more equitable distribution of enjoyment. We see in this film that only Joe is permitted to enjoy: Joan and her son, David, are not allowed to smoke or drink, but more importantly they are not allowed to write. (Joan is denied authorship of her work and the son’s work is never read by his father).
David searches endlessly for a way to identify with his father’s image, since he does not have access to the real man. His father, Joe, endlessly harangues him for smoking without realizing that in smoking, David is perhaps trying to find some sort of link to his father, through the image of his “father the writer” who as a young man also smoked. In this failed search for something of substance to hold on to and inherit from his father, David writes in a way that is driven mostly by the desire to have his father’s love and admiration, rather than by the “need to write”. This too is the legacy of the narcissistic, charismatic father, where the children are encouraged to emulate the image of the man, rather than to identify with the function of the father, fathering, which means surrendering to the greater principles of “being a parent”, of parenting, and specifically in this case, “writing”. Thus, the son tries to access writing through the image of his father, rather than with the act of writing itself.
While not entirely disconnected from herself, Joan seems disconnected from direct access to her own desires, re-routed in the service of propping up the image of her husband. On the other hand, she is able to write because of her identification with the act of writing, something that is done out of the necessity of easing an inner pain. She however fails in “becoming a writer” in the fact that she cannot sign her own name to her work. In effect, she de-authorizes herself as is expected of her if she is to be a kingmaker and never a king in her own right. This is the tragedy of the construction of Joan’s subjectivity: Regard Joan’s facial expression of absolute erasure every time Joe says to others, “she doesn’t write”. This is the equivalent of saying she lacks a voice, she has no place in discourse, neither will she write nor will she be written about. In effect, she does not exist and will disappear from history. But how do we reconcile that look of erasure with the unmistakable stirring of pleasure coloring her face when, asked by the King at dinner about her profession, she responds, “I am a kingmaker”? What do we do when agency has self-sabotage baked in?
Joe fails as a writer and as a parent because he is identified only with his own image–the words, spoken with Rimbaud-esque urgency, “One must write because if he doesn’t he will die” are tools of seduction and power for Joe, they mean nothing if they cannot lead to the reaffirmation of his image. Joan, however, upon hearing these words instantly submits to the passion of giving herself over to a discipline whose ethics become the project for “having a life” (Kirshner, 2004), if by this we mean being affectively embedded in the social-symbolic framework that anchors subjective existence (Kirshner, 2004). While Joan is able to produce a book, Joe’s breakout novel called “The Walnut”, Joe can only produce an actual walnut, which he’s seen constantly taking out of his pocket to give to the women he seduces. If Joan’s talent is a testament to her alpha functioning, to think of Bion, to her ability to derive words and meaning from raw pain, Joe’s walnut is a testament to his ability to expel bizarre objects, stripped of meaning apart from the scribbled on, misspelled names of the women he seduces.
Of the daughter, we know and see practically nothing. She is pregnant, has a baby, and disappears early on from the rest of the film. David is saved from a future psychosis or addiction only because Joe’s would-be biographer, Nathaniel, leaks to him images and fragments that are glimpses into what might possibly sustain him symbolically once the mirage of the all-powerful father comes crumbling down. When this happens, Joe’s death is caused by anxiety, not guilt, triggered by the unsustainability of his self-image, propped up until then only by the mutual fantasy with his wife, who no longer believes in the fantasy. In a deeply sad moment of the film, Joe, in his dying breaths, asks his wife if she loves him, perhaps trying to grasp at something that still feels true and on to which the last moments of his life might be staked. When Joan answers that she does, he cannot believe her, such has been their history of self-deception and fantasy.
When the film ends, we see Joan and David flying back to the States. Nathaniel is on the flight and Joan makes it clear that she will not help him with his book by sharing Joe’s and her secret, and threatening to sue Nathaniel if he ever maligned Joe’s name. We, the audience, understand that Joan understands that she has killed the ambivalently loved primal father, and that his books must remain his in the same way that the totem substitutes the murdered father and reminds his killers of the importance of the rule of law. She will tell her children the truth. But in refusing to be Nathaniel’s “anonymous source”, she is effectively making sure she will never be the ghost-writer of another man’s book.
Kirshner, L. A. (2004). Having a life: Self-pathology after Lacan. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press.
Perelberg, R. (2015) Murdered father, dead father. Revisiting the Oedipus complex. London, New York: Routledge.
Buren, J.V. (1992). The Semiotics of Gender. J. Amer. Acad. Psychoanal., 20(2):215-232.
Rodrigo Barahona, PsyaD, is a faculty member at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute, a board member of the Boston Group for Psychoanalytic Studies, and a member of the American Psychoanalytic Association and the International Psychoanalytic Association. He is also a committee member on the IPA/IPSO Relations Committee and an associate board member of the International Journal of Psychoanalysis. He has a private practice in Brookline, Massachusetts. Dr. Barahona regularly reviews Latin American psychoanalytic literature. Click here to check out his other recently published reviews.
The opinions or views expressed on the Boston Psychoanalytic Society & Institute (“BPSI”) social media platforms, including, but not limited to, blogs, Facebook posts and Twitter posts, represent the thoughts of individual contributors and are not necessarily those of the Boston Psychoanalytic Society & Institute or any of its directors, officers, employees, staff, board of directors, or members. All posts on BPSI social media platforms are for informational purposes only and should not be regarded as professional advice.
BPSI does not control or guarantee the accuracy, relevance, timeliness or completeness of information contained in its contributors’ posts and/or blog entries, or found by following any linked websites. BPSI will not be liable for any damages from the display or use of information posted on its website or social media platforms. BPSI cannot and does not authorize the use of copyrighted materials contained in linked websites.